Leader Profile: Vidar Helgesen, Secretary-General, International IDEA

Since 1997, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) has actively buttressed the cause for sustainable and long-term democracy, fortifying democratic structures in various countries all over the world and finding ways to refine existing democratic processes to encourage development and genuine growth within established – or emerging – democratic nations. With 25 member states under its wing, this inter-governmental organization regularly joins hands with policy makers, donor countries, the United Nations, as well as other regional organizations equally devoted to the effort of creating fully-functional democracies worldwide. International IDEA accomplishes these by providing knowledge resources, facilitating policy discussions, and jumpstarting democratic reform in specific countries.

Guiding International IDEA towards achieving its lofty goals is Vidar Helgesen, the organization’s Secretary-General. “I’m in charge of the entire operations of International IDEA, and I answer to our 25 member states and the government structures that they have,” Helgesen explains. “It’s a highly political and diplomatic job, if you like. One of my tasks has to do with managing my staff of more than 60 people in our Stockholm headquarters and about 70 to 80 staff members in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.” He adds that although most of the direct management for International IDEA’s regional offices is executed by the organization’s Director of Operations, he is himself responsible for steering International IDEA towards a certain strategic direction.

Having occupied the position for two years, Helgesen has found himself right in the path of the most formidable challenges, especially when one considers how democracy has slowly been elbowed out of its seat as the preferred political paradigm. “Democracy, for the first time in 30 years, is not necessarily on a forward march. There is more resistance; there are more slidebacks into autocratic governments or systems,” he observes. “One phenomenon that has evolved over the years is the apparent inability of democratic institutions and democratic politicians to deliver on development for people. It has been epitomized not the least in Latin America, where politics have been elitist and quite exclusionist.”

According to Helgesen, another development that may have exacerbated this trend is the route that the Bush administration pursued in promoting the democratic model. “The freedom agenda of Washington, though well-intentioned, in inevitably connected to the Iraq war. This itself has provided opportunities for various autocrats to say that democracy promotion is just an aggressive American agenda,” he laments. “There’s also China’s new economic power, and its political model has already begun to be viewed as an alternative that might be more successful than democracy. But economic development isn’t the only aspect to overall development in a country. Most democracies have far-better economic development than, say, a lot of non-democratic states.”

Despite such sizeable challenges, however, he admits that democracy in all its forms and manifestations continue to hold his keen interest. And although the fight for democracy can sometimes feel stilted, Helgesen finds much to rejoice in where his work is concerned. “The complexities and the renewed challenges involved with democracy are quite fascinating. If democracy was a linear, forward march, it wouldn’t be as exciting to work with,” he says with a laugh. “Obviously, though, what is most fulfilling is that we are able to contribute as an organization to better democratic processes. That kind of catalytical role is something that we aim at playing well, and it’s been very rewarding to get recognition for the work we’ve done.”

International IDEA’s work in Nepal, for example, yielded what Helgesen felt were pleasantly surprising results. “In Nepal, we supported the government’s constitution-building process. The country has huge difficulties and challenges - they’re still not out of the woods in terms of conflict. But it was heartening to see even the country’s impoverished repeatedly call for democracy, defying many traditional notions. It’s all been a rewarding experience,” he recalls.

Before he was appointed as International IDEA’s Secretary-General, Helgesen was Norway’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He also practiced as a lawyer, and was once the Special Adviser to the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He holds a law degree from the University of Oslo.

In the end, however, Helgesen believes that for a democracy to function well, it must spring off from a solid bedrock of knowledge and practical experience, elements that International IDEA can very well bring to the surface. “I think it’s important for us to be a vehicle for our member states. I would like all our 25 member countries to see International IDEA as a good tool for supporting democracy building on a global scale,” Helgesen discloses. “I’d like to achieve better democracy-building policies and practices - on our part and on others’ - through a more knowledge-based approach, where democratic systems and democratic processes are built on experience, rather than on ideological concepts.”

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